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Mastering Compression: A Comprehensive Guide on How to Dial in Perfect Compression for Pro-Level Audio

In the realm of audio and MIDI track editing, the signal chain acts as a gateway to a multitude of effects. From precision tools like autotune to captivating embellishments like guitar chorus effects, this collection of effects holds immense potential.

Yet, amidst this vast array, one effect stands out as both simple and indispensable: the compressor. With its ability to provide compression, this unassuming tool holds the key to achieving impeccable sound quality across any instrument. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned musician, understanding the art of dialing in compression is paramount to achieving harmonious and balanced audio production. Get ready to unravel the secrets behind compression and embark on a transformative journey to refine your sonic creations.

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All About Compression

So first thing first, let’s talk about what compression is.

Compression is the act of tweaking an audio’s dynamic range. The intention is to make the loudest and softest parts feel less distant in volume.

Simply put, it’s reducing the loud parts of the audio and evenly increasing the softest parts to make it consistent.

Why Add Compression

When we record audio, be it guitar, bass, or vocals, sometimes a take can sound inconsistent. There may be parts in the recording where we were too loud or too soft.

You can re-record the parts, but it might be a waste if those parts were already good and all you needed was toning down the volume.

A quick and effective way of solving this problem is turning on compression. Having it on allows for fixing the parts that are only loud to be much closer to the softer parts.

This makes it a quick yet effective solution you can use so you can have more time to work on the other important parts of mixing.

But they’re not only made for this fix. They can also be used to add more color to audio.

It might sound confusing how an effect that cuts down volume can also enhance audio. Before that, let’s move on to the control knobs in a compressor.

The Knobs in a Compressor

Now this may sound simple in concept, which it technically is. However, the confusing part about compression is the different knobs in a compressor effect.

Different compressor effects have different layouts, but they all come with these control knobs.


The first section to learn about compression is the first control know you will see in a compressor. That is the threshold.

The threshold is the level at which the compressor starts compressing the audio. The threshold is measured in decibels (dB).


The next step in setting up your compression is tweaking the ratio.

The ratio determines how much the level is reduced once sound exceeds the threshold.

Here’s an example.

Let’s say the ratio of the compression is 2:1. For every 2dB the signal gets past the threshold, it will be reduced by 1 dB.

Other settings include 4:1 and 8:1.

You can even set the ratio to past 10:1, which. However, there is another term and even effect for it.

A compressor set to infinite:1 is called a limiter. Limiters act as a harder form of compression as every time the signal surpasses the threshold, it will be put to a halt.

This is different from compression as the goal of compression is to just make louder parts softer so as to make the distance between loud and soft parts narrower.


Attack refers to how fast the compression effect will take place. Faster time, so around 20-800 microseconds, equates to a faster attack.


The release is the opposite. This time it refers to how quickly the compression effect will wear off.


The knee control knob involves controlling how the compression will go about. The knob goes from 0 to 1.0 and the higher the number, the softer the knee is.

Smaller values are known as a hard knee.

Hard knees allow for a more abrupt compression, while softer knees enable more subtle compression.

Make-Up Gain

The last knob in many compressors is make-up gain.

While the point of compression is to balance out the signal, its main job is to reduce high levels of signal. This is where makeup gain comes in.

Make-up gain allows for softer signals to be increased so as to help balance the audio.

Tips to Remember

So with the basic function of compression laid out, here are some tips on how to use compression in your mixes.

Adding compression to vocals

When it comes to vocals, the subtler the better.

Don’t go overboard with the compression and set the parameters too high. Overly-compressed vocals might sound janky and jarring at times, especially if the vocals are naturally good.

Setting the ratio to a low setting and making the attack or release a bit slower will make the compression sound gentler and more natural sounding.

That way your vocals are still balanced volume-wise while keeping it natural that no one will notice.

How to go about heavy compression?

So when can you use heavy compression?

Heavy compression works best with louder sounds. Examples include electric guitars and snare drums.

These types of sounds will make them sit well with the other tracks.

But keep in mind to not overdo it. More compression will reduce transience. Transience includes little but detailed sounds that add more character to a sound.

Think of how a snare drum slowly decreases in volume after hitting it.

So Compressors or Limiters?

While limiters is technically a compressor with a ratio setting of infinite to 1, they are now made typically as separate effects.

The difference between limiters is that their ratio setting is meant to cut out any part of the audio that exceeds the threshold. It’s a much harder form of compression.

Limiters are best used at the end of a signal chain or used in the mastering section. That way you’re able to both iron out some loud areas in the mix and prevent what is known as clipping. All the while without messing too much with the audio’s original sound.

Use compression to shape the dynamic range of audio while using limiters for preventing audio peaks.

Learning by Doing

Compression might sound simple, but getting it done right takes time. More importantly, it takes a lot of practice.

Striking a balance between addressing the loud peaks while being able to enhance the audio is crucial when handling compression.

But no need to worry, this is something you can accomplish as you continue recording and mixing.